Spicer Commission 1991

Citizen's Forum on Canadian Unity


Our Task and How We Went About It

1. The context

On November 1, 1990, the federal government announced the creation of the Citizens' Forum, on Canada's Future and sent it on a mission to listen to the people to find out what kind of country they wanted for themselves and their children.

The prime minister called the Forum "an independent body of eminent Canadians who will launch a dialogue with people across the country and help create a consensus about Canada and our future." He called the situation in Canada "urgent" and the problem "serious."

In 1982, the federal parliament and nine provincial legislatures agreed on the Constitution Act, which would bring the constitution home from Britain to Canada on April 17, 1982. The only legislature that did not agree was Quebec. New negotiations led to the proposed Constitution Act of 1987, accepted by the 11 then first ministers. This act dealt specifically with Quebec demands. Quebec had come aboard, but the new Constitution Act, known as the Meech Lake accord, had to be ratified by the Parliament of Canada and all 10 provincial legislatures within three years. The deadline of June 23, 1990 passed without the necessary unanimous ratification. The Meech Lake accord died.

The failure at Meech Lake left Quebeckers feeling betrayed and rejected by what would become known, almost territorially, as "the rest of Canada." Other Canadians felt powerless, ignored and abandoned, isolated from each other, and disgusted with their decision makers.

Although they did not kill it, Canada's aboriginal peoples opposed the Meech Lake accord. A critical factor was the failure of four First Ministers' Conferences between 1983 and 1987 to resolve the issue of native self-government. As Quebec felt betrayed by the failure of the Meech Lake accord, so aboriginal peoples felt betrayed by the constitutional process.

The summer and fall of 1990 was also the year when the longstanding grievances of aboriginal peoples, aggravated by indifference, reached the boiling point. Unfortunate events, unprecedented in modem Canadian history, at many places across the country, brought national and international attention to the situation of Canada's aboriginal peoples.

2. The task

With only eight months to do its job, the Forum set out to collect and focus citizens' ideas for their vision of the country, and to improve the climate of dialogue by lowering the level of distrust. (This was our broad mandate. For our detailed mandate, see Appendix A.)

We quickly realized that we had neither the time nor expertise to study longstanding aboriginal issues. We so advised the prime minister, who agreed.

The Forum's task was to get Canadians talking among themselves about vital issues that faced a perplexed nation: Quebec's quest for a new relationship with the rest of Canada; aboriginal grievances and aspirations; official languages; ethnic and cultural diversity; fundamental Canadian values; the economy; and Canada's place in the world.

The Forum began with the question, "Does the Canadian family still want to live together?" And if it does, how? If Canadians at the grassroots level could have a substantive role in shaping their country's future, what would be the Canada of their dreams?

This was not to be a traditional royal commission. Instead of asking citizens to come to the Forum, the Forum would go to the people - in their living rooms and kitchens, schools and universities, church basements and temples, farms and reserves, boardrooms and chambers of commerce, YM/YWCAs, union halls, parks, theatres - even trains, prisons, street shelters.

From a standing start on November 1, 1990, to this Final Report promised by July 1, 1991 - Canada Day some 400,000 Canadians participated in the Forum and over 300,000 Canadian elementary and secondary students participated in our separate Students' Forum far more than any other commission of enquiry in the history of our country. Participants attended group discussions, they called a Forum toll-free Idea Line, they sent in briefs and letters and individual reports, they created thousands of pieces of art specially for the

Forum, wrote short plays or skits (four presented at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa), penned a few songs and, for some reason, hundreds of poems. Most, if not all, participants also spoke to family, friends and colleagues about their experience, bringing the effervescence of new dialogue to many more people whose numbers we cannot even estimate.

3. The tools

To make the consultation process as accessible as possible, the Forum decided to go to citizens wherever they were most comfortable. We wanted to reach people who would not easily have appeared before a traditional royal commission. This time, we wanted all Canadians to have an opportunity to have their say.

a) Idea Line

Our first step was to set up within six days a toll-free Idea Line, in French and English, so that Canadians could call from wherever they lived to ask questions, give advice and vent their frustrations and grievances. The Idea Line helped us get a feel for the country and many callers provided us with useful suggestions for conducting the Forum.

We had early organizational difficulties responding to calls on our Idea Line, difficulties which irritated some callers, but after refinements the system worked well. This Idea Line gave citizens a handy first contact with the Forum, and their comments echoed the emotional tones of open-line radio shows - although in later months our carefully trained operators were able to engage callers in longer, more constructive dialogue. At the same time, operators noted their views on a special form for our professional analysts, who studied callers' comments in the same thorough way they did reports from discussion groups.

These telephone talks could not usually reach the depth and varied interchange of the groups. But even with its weaknesses, this immediate and universally accessible link to the Forum was highly appreciated, and allowed us to cross-check our conclusions from the groups, briefs and letters.

By the time the Idea Line had to be closed down at the end of April, we had received 75,069 calls, some brief; others lasting into half an hour.

b) Group Discussions

Early on, we devised special kits for groups to make the Forum a grassroots, do-it-yourself commission of enquiry. This was the heart of our process. These group discussion kits contained questions to elicit opinions and insight on the issues at stake and to encourage frank exchange among participants. The questions were tested on groups of citizens, some of whom had called the Idea Line to volunteer their services. As the process continued, the questions became discussion points, revised to make them more approachable and to encourage greater response and candour.

We developed a cadre of trained moderators who met early in January on the snowy campus of Trent University in Peterborough for an intense and enthusiastic weekend seminar/training session. Experts were brought in to brief the moderators on language, aboriginal issues, regionalism, multiculturalism, constitutional law and economics. They also explained the process of the Forum and how to conduct group discussions. Some of those who attended the "moderators' college' were' regional coordinators in their provinces and territories, recruiting and training other moderators and volunteers. Small regional offices were established in all provinces and territories. Completed reports sent in to the Forum show that while many discussion groups used the Forum's own trained moderators, many other groups took place by citizens' own initiative, with their own moderators, or no moderator. Many groups didn't find time to return a report; perhaps the discussion itself was what mattered most to them.

Our first proposed list of discussion points in early January stuck closely to our official mandate. But, as we predicted at the outset, we quickly had to simplify this list (in mid-February) and adapt it to citizens' own perception of key issues. In the end, the citizens did it their way. Many insisted on continuing to use our first, more complex list. Some cast both our lists aside to have a free-for-all discussion. A few - for example, at Pointe-de-l'Eglise in Nova Scotia - scrapped all our documents to invent their own, which they liked better.

The citizens soon let us know who was going to run the Forum. The way each session unfolded varied enormously. Some groups were hesitant and sober at the start, others immediately angry and confrontational. But nearly all seemed to flower in the second or third hour of discussion into passionate outpourings, whether quietly or noisily expressed. People listened to each other, debated, talked on or off the subject as they chose, sometimes laughed, and not infrequently cried. They argued politely, then bluntly, but always caringly. By the end of virtually every discussion, participants spoke of relief, excitement, gratitude, even exhilaration. Discussion mostly took the form of exchange of views and ideas, without necessarily trying to reach consensus.

Also at the end, the moderator or - more often an elected rapporteur, was requested to fill out a group report which our professional analysts studied against a list of, eventually, over 2,000 key words. Each participant was also free to fill out a personal report form, and many did so. Apart from analyzing both types of reports according to the system explained in Appendix B, we collected and keyed to 38 major themes thousands of specific quotations from which we culled those for this report.

The Forum invited the help of many national organizations - churches, service clubs, youth groups, professional associations, unions and others. This led to requests, from the organizations and spin-off groups, for 10,839 discussion kits to be distributed to their members.

More than 150 major national organizations multicultural, religious, service and general interest associations - responded by actively promoting group discussions among their memberships. Municipalities were urged,to develop exchanges with communities in other regions. Nearly two dozen such exchanges were planned during the Forum's mandate.

Through national organizations and municipalities, the Forum was able to reach Canadians from all walks of life.

As part of the Forum's own Outreach Program, group discussions were organized on 42 university and college campuses, involving some 15,000 participants. The Outreach Program also organized "affinity groups," bringing together groups with common interests - engineers and engineers, farmers and farmers, people in small towns in Quebec and small towns in the rest of Canada - from different parts of the country. Some 30 francophone citizens in St. Boniface, Vanier, Quebec City and Moncton conducted a discussion on a teleconference call. Group discussions were also held among Canadians posted abroad, in several cities across the United States, in Europe, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Japan, among CIDA workers in Africa and Canadian students studying at Oxford University.

By 31 May 1991 - the date we stopped counting in order to get this report to print - we knew for sure that 7,681 group discussions had taken place because we had either received the group reports from 180,667 people who had participated in these groups or had the numbers confirmed by moderators.

But as we said, we also know that a large number of groups held discussions and never got around to filling out the group report or sending it in to us. A survey carried out by our people in the regions revealed that, of those who had received discussion kits, for at least every ten groups who had held discussions and sent in a report to the Forum, another five to ten groups had never sent back any report. On this basis, and using 31 May numbers, our best estimate of the total number of Forum group discussions that took place is more tha n 13,000, involving some 315,000 participants.

c) Letters, Briefs and Individual Kits

Besides the group discussions, Canadians who wished to express themselves at more length and in greater depth submitted 7,056 letters and briefs. Some were over 50 pages long. Some had footnotes. All were thoughtful, concerned and usually very moving.

The Forum also designed special kits for individuals to use alone. We estimate that some 3,000 individuals chose to participate in this way.

d) Students' Forum

A separate Students' Forum enabled young Canadians - elementary and secondary school students - to discuss their country's future. (Their report, Young People Speak, is published separately). The students used age-specific discussion kits designed and distributed by the Canadian Teachers Federation with Forum funding. Some 249 volunteers spent 4,607 hours analyzing reports for these groups.

Elementary students said many moving and thought-provoking things to their elders, and secondary students often astonished us by the wisdom and depth of their views.

This special youth consultation - in which the Quebec teachers' union did not wish to join - aimed first to respect young peoples' right as citizens to speak their views. But it also aimed to sensitize them to their country's crisis and to help us understand the special concerns of young people. Some examples: the environment, Canada's peaceful role in the world, and the need for a higher degree of tolerance.

Students' Forum participants sent us over 20,000 pieces of artwork, vividly portraying their feelings for Canada. Artwork from the students was displayed in the Canadian Museum of Civilization for three weeks surrounding the release of both this report and the student report.

By 31 May 1991 we had received reports from 4,575 classes. The reports showed that 106,393 students had participated.

As with our experience with the Forum group discussion kits, we know that many classes had discussions but did not send in their reports to the Forum. Students' Forum staff surveyed principals and teachers and found that for every 10 classes that submitted reports, more than 19 others had held classroom discussions without sending in a report to the Forum. On this basis, using May 31 numbers, our best estimate of Students' Forum participation is over 13,000 Canadian classrooms, involving more than 300,000 students.

By the way, many participants in the main Forum exercise were also of school age - they came on their own, or with parents.

Reports from the Forum and the Students' Forum were analyzed according to similar meticulous methods - but statistics and conclusions from both Forums were strictly segregated to avoid ambiguities resulting from the wide age-range of Students' Forum participants. (For details of the analytical system used in this report, see Appendix B).

e) Other Forums of Participation

In addition to the 75,069 Idea Line callers, the 315,000 group discussion participants, the 10,000 individual correspondents and the 300,000 Students' Forum participants, a large number of Canadians attended as spectators at Forum group discussions, in debates and conversations inspired by the Forum, or via television.

The Forum held its first televised Electronic Town Meeting in Saint John, New Brunswick, as part of the official launch of the Forum in January. It linked participants in Saint John with others in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife. After two ETMs in January and February, we ended in May with four shows focusing on key themes. All ETMs linked different regions, and were televised live in English and French.

Even if these TV forums, inexpensively produced and carried by a special national "Citizens' Network" on cable - did not attract huge audiences, they made a lot of citizens at home ask new questions and brought a good number of them into live discussions through the Forum's other activities.

Despite a war on the other side of the planet that threatened world peace and engaged our armed forces, the work of the Forum, and Canada's future, held a prominent place in the news during a winter and spring of discontent.

4. The analysis

Material from all these sources became part of the Forum's national data base to be examined by a team of analysts, then placed on the public record. An important distinction to make is that the Citizens' Forum was a probing consultation and dialogue - not a poll.

Participants were not selected randomly by computer; they took part because they wanted to talk about their country and Canada's future. The analysts sifted through an astonishing volume of comments, using techniques sensitive to subtleties yet designed to be flexible enough to deal with a great variety of comments.

As discussion reports were arriving, the analysts coded the letters and briefs against an initial list of about 300 key words which were identified to correspond to the views citizens were expressing. This list eventually increased to more than 2,000 key words, meaning that those who took the time to participate helped to create the analysis process. All reports were read. More than 35 per cent of discussion reports were also extensively analyzed, using the key word list. Based on these results, the analysts read all of the remaining 65 per cent, noting similarities and differences and any major deviation from established trends. They also collected thousands of quotations to illustrate themes in this report.

There was a communications and advertising program as well. A series of 30-second network television spots in English and French, some using well-known professional actors volunteering their services, spurred interest and participation in the work of the Forum. When the TV spots appeared, calls to the Idea Line increased from 200-300 to more than 2,000 a day.

Forum staff prepared a working paper on its progress late in March, detailing what it had learned from citizens between January 13 and March 10. This document made front-page news, describing the groundswell of anger, disillusion and desire for change of those who had participated in the Forum. The report won the Forum respect and welcome credibility with the general public, because it demonstrated that what citizens told the Forum would be faithfully reported.

The Forum tried to be as open as possible, with the chairman and commissioners travelling to all parts of the country, sometimes singly, sometimes in blitzes of two or three. They explained the process to participants, delivered countless speeches and answered media questions, maintained the high profile of the Forum, and sat in on group discussions, to listen and occasionally to challenge.

One of the commissioners attended a discussion in remote Ile-à-la-Crosse, an Indian and Métis village in northern Saskatchewan. Participants sat in a circle and handed around an eagle feather to whomever wanted to speak. They talked honestly about intimate fears and aspirations and when the session ended they told the visiting commissioner, "Go and tell them."

5. The process

We will never know exactly how many people the Forum reached, or gauge precisely its impact on the country. But in its own way, the Forum worked.

It was an honest process. It worked because citizens themselves wanted it to work. Except among French-speaking Quebeckers and aboriginal peoples, the people took ownership of the process.

A few words should be said about the people who spoke to the Forum. We had excellent participation from Canadians in all parts of Canada. However, we must point out that the participation of francophone Quebeckers was lower than we hoped, and lower than would be representative of their proportion of the Canadian population. Nonetheless, the almost 45,000 Quebeckers who gave their views to the Forum (11.2 per cent of our participants overall) constitute a considerable body of opinion. It is possible that in Quebec, where the Bé1anger-Campeau Commission was finishing its hearings as we were beginning, citizens may have felt less of a need for a Forum to reflect their views than elsewhere in Canada.

We were surprised at the number of sovereigntists who attended our meetings in Quebec, with questions, or to listen. They cared enough to participate; a few seemed curious to explore a bit more whether Quebec's aspirations could be accommodated within some kind of Canada.

We did not hear from as many aboriginal peoples as we would have liked, and those we did reach tended to meet in groups of their own, on their homelands. Many of them reacted to the Forum with suspicion as a people who have been "commissioned-out," with no real hope of resolving their grievances.

The Forum could easily not have succeeded. We made mistakes. At the start, commissioners fought with each other over budgets, strategy, methods and priorities, then told it all in technicolor to the media. Meshing bureaucrats, creative professionals, commissioners and volunteers was, well, challenging. We didn't have enough time. We met the usual barriers of climate and geography. Indeed to meet all together was not easy, with 11 part-time commissioners having other responsibilities.

We were reviled as -spendthrifts insensitive to a people enduring recession. Without precedent, we were summoned before a parliamentary committee in mid-process to answer for high crimes ... or at least high spending. We faced entrenched cynicism as suspected stooges of an unpopular government. At the start, there was massive distrust and anger directed at politicians, governments, bureaucrats and the media, and to us it seemed we had become an instant lightning rod for them all.

In the early weeks, devising as we were implementing, we faced hostile, uncomprehending media unaccustomed to the unorthodox, sometimes experimental nature of the Forum. We were criticized when the media were not allowed in some discussion groups, a citizens' right that was built into the process. Most groups were eager for the media to cover their discussions, but a few opted for intimate, private discussions. The Forum was not an easy story to cover.

The framework of the- consultation process can be found in the very name of the Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future. This was a fresh, unprecedented attempt to reach the Canadian grassroots and it demanded a fresh, unprecedented process to fulfil that mission.

The heart of the process, as we said, was the discussion group. Often the most moving contributions came from individuals who would normally be expected to sit silent in the back row of a large audience. Most discussions involved groups of six to two dozen people and usually lasted about three hours, though some continued over entire weekends. Many groups spontaneously agreed to meet again, and many more led to other groups in a natural multiplication.

In Winnipeg, a discussion at a school for the deaf was conducted entirely, and passionately, in sign language. In Ottawa, there were discussions among the blind, and among Olympic athletes. In Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, aboriginal elders from a nearby reserve joined residents at a senior citizens home for a discussion among 40 participants.

From Sioux Lookout, Ontario, a radio hook-up linked aboriginal peoples in 20 isolated communities with a phone-in discussion of Forum materials translated into Cree and Ojibway. In Vancouver, there were group discussions with street people. There were discussions among fishermen in Newfoundland, sovereigntists in Quebec, Acadians in New Brunswick, Inuit in Resolute, and even newspaper journalists.

Several TV and radio stations, and the youth specialty service, YTV, held their own on-air forums. The magazine Canadian Living devoted an issue to a group discussion involving people from across the country, .now living in Toronto. In March, in Miami, Manitoba, an early-morning gathering of farmers, many of them facing severe financial hardship, put aside their local worries to discuss the large issues of Canada's future. Nor were more traditional sources of wisdom ignored: we had the benefit of advice from spiritual leaders, businessmen and academics, individually and through such organizations as the chambers of commerce.

The process of the Forum continued to evolve and refine itself. Citizens devised new ways to do it better. Special "Citizens' Forum Days" were declared by mayors' proclamation, the first of which engaged 472 people in Brandon, Manitoba - this inspired mayors in other cities across the country to follow "the Brandon Way." In these large sessions, sometimes including as many as 40 individual groups, participants decided to hold plenary sessions at the end where spokespersons from each table could report on discussions.

As the consultation phase drew to an end in April, train exchanges brought together groups from Ontario and Quebec commuting in special VIA Rail cars between Toronto and Montreal. Participants joined group discussions en route and were billeted in private homes in each city. There was a similar exchange between residents of Wainwright, Alberta, and Marieville, Quebec, and between the city of Waterloo, Ontario, and the town of Waterloo, Quebec.

The group discussions attracted everybody. They drew some lobbyists and special pleaders, of course, who quickly went beyond their own agendas to explore broader ones. But mainly the process encouraged the spontaneous and the unorganized - all the "unofficial" or "unrepresentative" people.

The intimate group format usually restrained the professional talkers. These had their say, to be sure. But by and large, the rhythm and dynamic of the group managed to contain them, defuse the obstreperous and achieve a leavening balance.

There are many stories.

Days after the official launch in New Brunswick last January, the chairman and commissioners embarked on a blitz of the Maritimes, attending group discussions in Saint John, Truro, St. Andrews, Edmunston, Sydney, Antigonish, Charlottetown, Campbellton, Fredericton, Amherst, Bridgewater, Moncton, Caraquet and Halifax. Most of the discussions worked well, but there was some misunderstanding and confusion.

Over 100 people showed up at a school auditorium for a Forum session that had been erroneously mentioned on radio as a group discussion for 15 participants. The concept of the group discussion had not yet set in the public's mind and some people assumed that they had been excluded from an official royal commission "hearing." They were furious - not entirely to the dismay of TV reporters. Security guards were brought in for crowd control.

Fortunately, there were enough trained moderators on hand for the spillover. They led five groups to different classrooms for group discussions, some of them demanding a long walk into a stiff, cold wind to adjacent buildings. The group that remained in the auditorium insisted on having their "royal commission" say, and one by one they walked up to the stage to deliver speeches, some of which were submitted to the Forum as official briefs.- Those who remained after the speeches formed a group discussion of their own. When it ended two hours later, everyone left for home carrying Forum kits, ready to organize more group discussions.

In Toronto, one woman volunteer tried to organize and moderate group discussions for every year of her life. Mrs. Vera Read, 74, succeeded. She moderated 77 discussions, most of them with other senior citizens in her apartment.

Early in April, in Drayton Valley, Alberta, a man came to the Forum to return his war medals, which he had brought with him. Why? Because he was now ashamed of being a Canadian, watching people tear apart the country he had fought for. His name was Les Scribner, he was 72 years old, and he remembered how a wartime French-Canadian buddy had saved his life, then later died at sea. Mr. Scribner said, "I'm glad he can't see how I have to give up being proud. Our country is a house divided, about to break up. I have come to relinquish my service emblems to this Forum. Without one Canada they have lost all their meaning." The audience of 300, in a standing ovation, insisted he keep his medals.

Rich and compelling - and important - as the discussions were, reports submitted to the Forum from them seldom caught the intensity, interplay, life, spirit and texture of the actual discussions. To capture the essence of a three-hour discussion often proved impossible in the space allotted in the report forms. As noted, we did not receive reports from all group discussions. Some participants considered the face-to-face exchange was satisfying enough - others, perhaps, thought reports a waste of time.

In general, we would have wished to have been able to devise and widely implement better ways of collecting a gross lack of information. And we would have hoped to foster even more exchange of ideas and mutual education.

Finally, we have to recognize that we did not do as good a job as we would have liked. We tried to d 'en the dialogue, but apart from some excellent experiences in B.C. sharing participants' views with decision makers, mostly we could not. Time was just too short. The people's early need to vent their anger, our internal problems, and public skepticism stole precious weeks from the most promising part of our consultation schedule.

We must repeat an important point about our method of analysis. Our consultation embraced 400,000 people - 400,000 people who cared enough about the future of Canada to make the effort to participate. Our data were not scientifically compiled, in that the people were not randomly selected; but they were scientifically analyzed. Are the views of a random sample more useful than those of active participants in a lengthy consultation? The public must judge.

And we must acknowledge that on many issues our participants did not achieve consensus. But they were in agreement on a surprisingly large number of fundamentals. On these points of agreement and difference we have based our report.

6. The impact

 We have heard cries for change, as well as pleas for maintaining our hard-won reputation as a wonderful country of the world - free, orderly, tolerant, welcoming, peaceable, beautiful. And we have been told again and again that we can do better. The cry heard most often, a cry from the heart, demanded more effective involvement of ordinary Canadians in running the country. Their anger and frustration shows and it is dangerous.

The Forum acted as a catalyst, bringing people together, mixing and matching, and listening. The process served as a therapeutic exercise in airing grievances. Participants had their views jostled, undermined, confirmed and modified. Usually people emerged eager to know more about their country, distant Canadians, their neighbours and themselves. At the very least, they rediscovered the satisfaction of a good conversation.

The multi-dimensioned Forum process was a movie and an epic. The responses from Forum group discussions were not from people who answered an unexpected telephone call between the dining room and kitchen so they could respond to a questionnaire; their responses came after several hours of healthy dialogue, listening, reflection, and sometimes even a bit of personal research. With all its faults and missteps, the Forum may have revitalized the art of consulting citizens on key issues affecting their lives and futures.

There have been tangible results as well, directly and indirectly, from the groundswell activated by citizens. The federal government has announced the creation of a royal commission on aboriginal affairs long demanded before the Forum, it is true. Last month's Throne Speech said Quebec's unique character must be affirmed and the interests of the West, the Atlantic provinces, Ontario, the North and the First Nations must be recognized. It called for enabling legislation "to provide for greater participation of Canadian men and women in constitutional change." It called for 11 change in the way parliament does business and in the way governments conduct their affairs." And it said the time has come to overcome the acrimony, apathy and incomprehension that undermine Canada's unity.

The Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future was a unique process. It emerged from creative chaos to try to help a country hoping to make sense of itself. It created great expectations, and perhaps a new thirst for dialogue. In that sense, the process was the report.

Last HTML revision: 10 May, 1996

William F. Maton